Dear Mr Tan Keng Liang,
A politician in Penang, you would have heard of Tan Yi Min 陈乙敏, in hanyu pinyin transliteration Chen Yimin. You remember her?
She would be 12 in November, residing somewhere in Selangor, Kajang perhaps, in Primary Six today, going to Form One the next semester.
On Nov 8, 2010, a car with Selangor number plates arrived at the gates of Nibong Tebal’s Kwang Hwa Chinese primary school, stopped at its gates, three men got off, entered and, after an initial confusion, went to the main reception office looking for teachers. It was getting late, even for lunch, some teachers finishing their mid-day meals and, in time, the parents would arrive to collect their children. The principal was not in school when the two officers of the Selangor Religious Department asked to see him, the third man, a uniformed policeman hovered nearby.
Even in abnormal circumstances the presence of the Malay men was bizarre: coming from Shah Alam and getting there before class dismissal, they would have to cover about 400 kilometers, door to door, in five hours with perhaps a brief stop or two along the North South Expressway. It broke every rule in the book about keeping apart our ways of living.
The men wanted Tan Yimin. Without preface, a religious officer lifted her onto his shoulders while she kicked, wailed and screamed all the way to the gates. Nobody in school believe this was happening, Yimin’s teacher incredulous, while everybody else looked on. What could they do? What could anybody do? Nothing like this has ever happened before, not in Malaysia, not in particular Kwang Hwa.
Her father Tan Cheow Hong ( 陳招宏), after he was summoned, turned up, and the tussle continued into the local police station where Tan saw his wife, he said, wearing a ‘Malay’ dress. Ashen-faced, the tumult in his heart would have been nearly unbearable. Is this right? He would have asked. Policeman, yes. Could they talk this over? No. Could they wait? No.
In Yimin’s case, there were no two ways about it: she was abducted, forcibly, backed by the authorities acting in the name of Islam and in the name of the government of Malaysia, specifically a Selangor department under the watch of its MP, Khalid Samad, along with two Pakatan state governments, Penang and Selangor. Oddly, none of this is new. Hindraf fought tooth and nail over the cause of the Indians. MCA? Gerakan, given it is non-racial, couldn’t it do so in the name of social justice?
Should you, Tan Keng Liang, think all this has nothing to do with Bersih Girl or with you, then I say, patience; we’ll come to that.
Malaysian conduct doesn’t differ significantly between politics and life, not especially on Twitter where Christian Chinese and Anglophiles (Andrew Yew, Hannah Yeoh, et al, and note those kinds of names) have the market mostly to themselves. It begins like this: state your stand then argue your case. This is called deductive logic: the German philosophers Nietzsche and Schopenhauer call it, Reason follows the Will. It is identical to religious morality: I believe in God, and here are reasons for my belief. Similarly, in politics I’m on the side of Bersih and here’s why; or, I am for Gerakan and here’s why.
European Enlightenment flipped all that around, and which now forms the basis of rationale, scientific thought. It is called inductive reasoning. First Reason then conclusion.
This way of reasoning, or Kantian reasoning, was revolutionary, even at an ethical level: (1) you can be good without god (2) morality can be had by reasoning (Kant called it the ‘categorical imperative’) (3) anything else, Jesus in particular, are pure nonsense.
In the case of the Bersih Girl, it was easy to put her down. People in bare midriffs have no power, no influence, no Twitter, speak little or no English, and Anglophiles have Malaysiakini cornered to themselves. Then there is already a pre-determined idea of Bersih which goes something like this: moral, upright, dedicated and especially this, clean.
A person such as Tan Keng Liang (or Hannah Yeoh or Andrew Yew) operate on morality terms when he posted Bersih Girl. It inverse Bersih morality: Look at her! you say. The next thought, isn’t she flippant? Loose? Pointing to her bare midriff, Tan deemed her immoral (however defined). If she is immoral, then Bersih, can’t be moral.
In one stroke Tan inextricably connected sexuality (beauty actually) and morality and religion (recall that religion and morality are not the same.)
Those kinds of judgements, it will surprise you to know, are not contained in Chinese culture, not even Malay if one were to push the argument far enough. But they are, in Islamic morality and in Christianity, the latter synonymous with western culture and this is not incorrect. Habermas: Judeo-Christianity is the ultimate foundation … of western civilization. Everything else is postmodern claptrap. (How had the Chinese ended up as an Anglophile Malaysian First? Check out the life of Hannah Yeoh.)
Take those judgments mentioned earlier, push far enough, and this is what follows: The girl can’t be Muslim which was already obvious. Malays don’t do this sort of thing and Malays are Muslims. It’s always the Chinese; they corrupt the Malays, Malaysia; Anwar had sex with a Chinese prostitute; Baginda Razak was enticed then harassed by a Chinese-looking girl. One Minister (Hisham perhaps) went as far as saying that the Chinese women DAP MPs, without saying so explicitly though, visiting the mosques were defiling the place. Dirty, he says. Teresa Kok, Christian herself, would concur; she, too, knows what it is to be dirty and clean, to her words with only moral connotations.
Here then is the penultimate conclusion, and this is not conjecture but one sees and hears with deadly regularity: You’re Chinese? Be ashamed.
Mr Tan, remember the MACC interrogations of Teoh Beng Hock and others associated with DAP Selangor. The point of being Chinese, and whether they are shameful, went deep into the interrogation sessions. One question repeatedly told of the interrogations was this: You orang Cina? You dari Cina? In Petra Kamarudin’s Malaysia Today, and in popular culture you see the same insinuations: Chinese are materialistic (as opposed to spirituality, that is, godly).
Thus we have this popular, common perception of the Chinese in Malaysia: sex, immorality and irreligiousity. (Publicly, DAP Christians want the votes of the Chinese grocer and noodle stand hawker; privately they spit at them for their old, voodoo Chinese ways and Nga Kor Ming of Perak is most adept at it.)
When you, Tan Keng Liang lifted off the Bersih Girl photo, tar her on moral terms, you invariably sharpen the differences between a Melayu and a Chinese. You, on your Twitter, had gone two-thirds of the way (sexuality, morality, religiousity), one step short of race. And it is only a short step away.
We won’t go into the history of this popular culture but let’s return to Yimin’s case and Pakatan and the Government of Malaysia.
Few, perhaps nobody, had expected either the government of Malaysia or Barisan Nasional to intervene in Yimin for reasons that are likely to be political and perceptual: uniformed men, Islam, Malay, and Law. As expected Yimin’s father filed a lawsuit but never got back his daughter, then already converted. (Tan Yimin is today Eilliyah Foong Abdullah, Foong being the mother’s surname. All traces of paternity, central to traditional Chinese culture are removed.)
We are expected to live by the Law, treat it as sacrosanct. Yet, repeatedly, the Law fails us so that politics is our next bet. It is in our instinct and one sees it most clearly in Umno: Malays go to the party for nearly everything to do with life. It is as if our existence is wedded to politics, a thing most peculiar to Malaysia. Imagine, on the other hand, a Negro American running to the Democratic Party to get a school place for a child or take care of a traffic ticket. It happens nowhere else so that Tan Keng Liang and other politicians should be aware of those ramifications.
Once the law failed, that is Malaysia failed, it raises a question. And this is not whether Yimin’s father should have gone to Gerakan or the DAP or MCA because he would have been already told that they are laws protecting his interest.
Yimin’s case wasn’t just a marital dispute between two Chinese parents although nearly every comment has said so. Once it concerns Islam the nature of the dispute automatically dissolves and moves on: it draws in the Malays, as a whole (recall, Malay men were involved). In short, race politics.
Alongside the politics comes a related question of morality because the starting point in the mother’s claim on Yimin is that the latter won’t be raised a Muslim, hence without Islamic morality. On the Chinese side, the question is this: Are the Malays — Yimin’s mother herself also retreats into the larger issue of race — so cruel as to take away a child who has nothing to do with them? The matter of the mother’s conversion becomes secondary and so is the Islamic morality-purpose in the abduction.
Those who know the Malays well enough, the answer to the question above is, no. Malays are a people who long ago, more than the Chinese did, had learned to live and let live – the words ‘relax’ and cool’ are Malay synonyms. Not, however, when Islam enters their lives. This is when things change, God (Islam, Christianity) fundamentally alters the character and the quality of relations between peoples, family and friends. Between Chinese and the Malays, it has been tumultuous.
Like Christianity, Islam is demanding in its absolutism: no two ways about it, do this and do that. It is only in Malaysia (and Indonesia) that the Malays, as a culture, had managed to ameliorate this harshness and which explains why the coalition of Barisan is, in hindsight a good thing, because it becomes a platform, a venue to allow the Chinese and and Malay to deal with problems. The Law does not always supply all our answers to questions of our lives.
In Yimin’s case, though, it went beyond the question of (marital and family) law becoming, in effect, a Malay-Chinese issue. This is why the Gerakan or the MCA should have intervened and, the mother, even if its within her adopted Islamic rights, has to surrender that adoption for the precedence and the greater good, that of Malay-Chinese harmony. Once political parties enter the fray, Yimin’s case is for the state, that is, the government of Malaysia, to answer: Malaysians are, after all, entitled to protection of the state. Yimin no less, but race politics failed her.
Unfortunately, alongside the indifference of race politics, of Gerakan, of MCA and of Malaysia, is this problem: lawyers turned Yimin into a strictly legal tussle while the mother turned it into religious question, that is, one of morality. Small wonder we never, never, never resolve problems even with a platform such as Barisan although it was set up precisely for such a purpose.
The first matter of legality need not detain us, but the second, of religion and race, had deeper more sinister propelling power: here is a mother who adopts the convenience and the excuse of Islamic morality in order to get at the child. And she knows why: flaunt the word or the idea of Malay, or better yet Malay-Muslim, you can nearly get away with anything.
Malay isn’t just a politically superior concept, it also has to do with the infidel thing (recall PAS once branded Umno as infidel for working with MCA, MIC). The infidel concept: if you are not with God you can’t be good or if you can you won’t make it to heaven. Christianity adopts the same posture.
This explains why it always a Chinese (occasional an Indian) who is depicted to be of loose morals, whether sexually or materially, because Islam (or Christianity) alone defines what is to be good. (For your information, Mr Tan, Chinese culture defines good the Kantian way: good is defined by reason.) Would you find a Malay-looking girl appearing in bare midriff? If she were Malay would you have posted her photo? Would you dare? We all know the answer, don’t we?
It is too late in the day or too arduous to change popular perceptions, so that the next best thing is to fall back on politics, race politics in particular because it provides all the elements for helping us get along. But not ideology, whether it is the ideology of Christian democrats (DAP) or Islamism (PAS) or social democats (PKR/Gerakan). We won’t go into it those. But, from hereon, you can see why your depiction of the Bersih Girl has strong, entirely adverse implications, not just about Chinese morality but also in the relations between Malay and Chinese.
You were wrong on more than one count: the author writing to you in the name of Bersih Girl can’t pretend to be Bersih Girl when her identity was never known – how do you ‘impersonate’ (your word) a non-existence? Bersih Girl or her impersonator isn’t Opposition either and not even pro-Oppo by which you mean you are attacked because you are Gerakan or Barisan. Wrong again. I have however this regret: dragging your mother into this sordid business. Sorry.
Naturally the DAP and the Bersih people would be gloating over the Bersih Girl letter — that’s in the nature of the beast called politics. But the point they missed is contained in the points you infer in your Twitter: race, religion, morality. It’s now a foregone conclusion that Bersih4 would be Chinese dominated and this opens up the way for the tin-heads in Umno and PAS to exploit: Chinese opposition against Malay interests. With a bare midriff, this becomes their idea: Itu Cina, what a bunch of whores!
It is not my station in life to advise on what should be the response to Bersih. Neither is it yours, Mr Tan. Let it be. But your methods are not it. Malay-Chinese relations is at the core of Barisan’s work so it is best to start there. What the Opposition has succeeded is to brush the race question aside, dismissing it in effect, and replacing it with such slogans as Bersih with all its moral connotations; they also made sure to sprinkle in Malay faces, a tacit acknowledgement that in Malaysian politics there is no getting away from race. Their way can only go so far but then Barisan, along with your Gerakan arseholes, had 50 years or more to tackle the problem. Now look at it.
PS: Mr Tan, your spittle fills buckets. In Yimin’s case, where were you?